Monday, August 3, 2009

Belle/Sebastian, Sid/Nancy, The Smiths, Tom/Summer: (500) Days of Summer: A Review



Note: This is the very first draft of an article I have been developing about the new film (500) Days of Summer. After having viewed the film in two different countries and various cities, I feel the writing experience has been most unique.




The terms indie, emo, and punk are as ubiquitous these days as Starbucks custom drinks and Steve Jobs-conceived gadgets. After spending a good amount of time hovering between sort-of-anonymity and the cool margins of the London and Seattle undergrounds, they are now finding themselves residing in the mainstream. What kind of cultural shift allowed for such unequivocal embracing?

Popular culture journalist Andy Greewald observed the following on this very question, "In a world where cars are advertised as punk, Green Day members are platinum rock stars, and getting pierced and tatted up is as natural as a sweet-sixteen party, everyone is free to come up with their own definition of punk—and everyone is ready to embrace it.”

While I disagree with Greenwald that punk is something that anyone can define at a whim, he seems to have tapped into some truth here. The new face of punk is of a somewhat reified or perhaps commoditized nature. It seems to seems to be as readily worn as a 300-dollar pair of torn Hugo Boss jeans with a rebel mark on the label.
Punk culture is not occupying the margin anymore. The norm or rather the center has now 'discovered' the margin much like Columbus discovered the Americas and it has acquired all the real estate its liquidity can manage.

Punk has entered the mainstream with as much gusto and confidence as Disney's next less-than-average loud stars (and future unemployed actors). If punk meant to refer to marginal and marginalized groups and subcultures, that stood for what was alternative to normativity, it now stands as another synonym of what it means to be cool, “in” and with-it, socially relevant, something you want to follow on Twitter and friend on Facebook.

I submit that Punk has not arrived anywhere. Instead, it has been co-opted. The center has co-opted it as only it knows how. Punk has been colonized by SUV-driving parents who will soon have to swap their big American-made and bankruptcy-swallowed GM for the Japanese-made Prius.

Could it be that the integration into the mainstream and espousal of once marginalized terms is yet another sign of our current systematic re-imagining of what it means to be us and how relevant we can still manage to be even though the cash flow is not what it once was and the current parachutes are not made of gold because it [gold] ran out?

This piece will explore how Marc Webb's first film (500) Days of Summer manages to feature in the center once marginalized culture terms and expectations. This film offers a new and gripping representation of life in the contemporaneity of post-2008. Webb, who comes mostly from the music video industry, provides a chronology-ignoring, fragmented love story which is so much more than what it explicitly purports to be. It is in this regard that the film delivers.

I have had the opportunity to view this film in two different countries now as well as in different cities. Regardless of the setting, the audiences seem to share a common approval of the film. Most of the online and newspaper reviews of this film, domestic and international, focus on it being a love story gone wrong. The story does indeed revolve around two people who enter a love relationship, one more readily than the other, but it is not all it is. I suggest that this is fundamentally a story of life in a modern reality in which shifts in cultural expectations have taken place and a new imagination has been engendered.

Plot Summary

In this film, screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter tell the story of love of two modern young people who, at first sight, seem to be compatible. They look like cut-outs of the 1960's London pop scene. The protagonist, Tom Hanson, is a soft-spoken, 'poster child' for emo culture a-la-1980's England. He is lanky, drenched in melancholy, interested in independent (indie) rock music and is especially keen on The Smiths, old architecture, urban planning, and minimalistic decor. Tom's appearance is almost a carbon copy of a young Smiths' Morrissey. Tom is a believer in love and destiny. The storyteller tells us that his beliefs as an adult are shaped by an early exposure to and love of melancholy British rock as well as such films as Mike Nichols' The Graduate.

Summer Finn, on the other hand, is a beautiful, carefree girl from Michigan whose parents divorced when she was young and who does not share Tom's beliefs in destiny, love, and daily life events of cosmic significance. Summer seems to be a person who lives in the moment not attaching much meaning to her and others' quotidianity. As she maintains, she is young and she'd rather have fun while living in Los Angeles and "worry about the serious stuff later." Summer procrastinates love, one might at first assume, and by so doing she manages to procrastinate responsibility-laced life.

However, what Summer might be procrastinating is the embracing of a shifting culture.
The first piece of information we get about Summer is that she quoted from Belle & Sebastian's track “The Boy With the Arab Strap” on her yearbook. The snippet she chose to quote says: “Colour my life with the chaos of trouble.” She seems to enjoy doing, as Tom observes to her during one of their almost-passive aggressive fights, “what she wants to do” thus exhibiting total disregard for what the others might think of her or how they might interpret her behavior. She seems to have disregard for established structures of any kind.

Tom and Summer meet at the workplace where Tom is a greeting card writer and Summer is the new assistant to the business owner, Mr. Vans. Tom's trained as an architect but he did not manage to get placed in his profession and consequently ended up working in a niche far from his immediate professional training. Tom's career choice in not really a mystery as he seems to reflect the economic fate of the times. This is another subtlety Webb manages to include in his film.

Tom is interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and intrigued by substantial music with a message. In fact, he is always seen in the company of the iPod which, as it is the case with many young professionals like Tom, serves as a quotidian guide. Tom is smitten by Summer. Summer insists on her liking of Tom inferring that such liking will not amount to much else. Tom wants consistency as he puts it, a structure, a routine. In other words, he wants that which Summer has been historically rejecting. Tom wants to hold on to a sense of stability and continuity which Summer explicitly says she, nor anyone else for that matter, can provide. By her own admission, she is not looking for anything serious. She is simply filling her days with some fun and adventure. She is not one to be anybody's titled girlfriend. She is keen, however, on offering friendship.

While Tom wants to nest, Summer is keen on flying away. One day, Summer breaks up with Tom just as easily as the two came together. She breaks her relationship with Tom while they are having pancakes. With an almost chilling nonchalance which is brilliantly captured by Zooey Deschanel, she conveys to Tom that they should remain friends. She continues to masticate her delicious pancakes while she dishes out to Tom a heartache which will consume him the rest of the year.

The reason she provides for the break-up is that the relationship had become too serious and that they were fighting too much almost turning into a “Sid and Nancy.” Tom is crushed by such admission and is quick to note that he hardly thinks he's 'Sid.' Summer quickly corrects him that it is she who is Sid and that Tom is, indeed, Nancy. Tom's emasculation by his dream girl takes full effect at this point in the story. Summer has not just claimed the one punk rock story from the 80's that defined an era. She's redefined it to fit her own view of love and relationships. She is the one in control, she is Sid and Tom is her “Nancy,” her eventual victim.

Soon after the breakup, Tom is inconsolable. He is an utter mess. Weeks after the couple happen to meet again. Tom is again full of hope that the previous love would somehow see the light of day again. Summer is flirtatious post-breakup and she sings and dances with Tom at a colleague's wedding. At the conclusion of a beautifully spent day, Summer invited Tom to a get-together she is having at her house. Tom is invigorated by such gesture and is almost levitating of joy. He interprets her seemingly interested dancing as a sign of renewed interest.

The director provides an enlightening split screen at this point which details Tom's expectations on the left and reality on the right. Eventually, reality takes over and it ends up devouring the left screen. At the party, in Summer's home, Tom is faced with the sad truth that Summer, his anti-commitment almost-girlfriend who crushed his world months prior to the party, was about to crush his world and sum of hopes anew.

Summer had not just found another love. She had said 'yes' to an offer of matrimony as evidenced by the diamond ring she was wearing on her left finger. Summer, the girl who had always resisted convention, ends up portraying the epitome of a conventional girl wearing a lovely blue dress, long, shiny pony tail, and diamond ring on the conventional left finger. She managed to co-opt Tom’s notions of romance. Heartbroken and alcohol-medicated, Tom becomes convinced that there is no such thing as destiny and fate when it comes to how people fall in love and that the universe is nothing but a series of random events.

He meets Summer again at the place he had once shown her as his favorite one in the city: Angela's Plaza. The plaza is a space where a man of his architectural sensibilities could feel at peace and be surrounded by beautifully old buildings. Summer tells him that he had been wrong about her and that after she left their relationship she became a believer in ideas of fate, destiny, and love.

Tom, determined to pursue his architecture dreams, leaves the business of card-writing and his steady/safe employment and starts interviewing for an architecture position for which another beautiful woman is applying as well. The woman seems to share much more with Tom than his love of architecture. She loves Angela's Plaza as well and her name, well, her name is Autumn as it makes so much subsequent sense that it would be.

Analysis

In his new book In Pursuit of Elegance, Matthew E. May observes the following: “Experiencing elegance is nearly always profound: it gives us pause, often evoking an ‘of course!’ – usually accompanied by a mild slap to the forehead. It can change our view of things, often forever.” This is the kind of reaction the protagonist Tom Hanson has when he sees Summer Finn. There's something about the aesthetic sensibilities of Summer that he finds immediately congruent with his own. Such congruity begs for tenacious attention which he feels he cannot help but give.

Tom's realization that his likings line up most adequately with Summer's is what catalyzes the birth of his deep interest in her. He sees himself reflected in Summer's idiosyncratic nature and it is precisely this reflection that legitimizes his pursuit. He doesn't simply love Summer because of some capricious whim, he likes her because their natures and inclinations are so close. The more he sees himself reflected in her the more attached he becomes.

Tom is also the key narrator in this story whereas Summer remains, for the most part, the recipient of his narration. This is a story of Tom about Summer not a story of Tom and Summer. In this case, it is Tom who co-opts his view of Summer as the only view about Summer. There is a clear giver/receiver dynamic in this scenario. Tom is higher up professionally albeit he finds himself stifled and unmotivated in a career he never intended to pursue seriously. Summer is only a secretary. We do not know what she studied in college or if she pursues anything else with a passion in life other than obscure papier-mâché art and a bizarre love for Ringo Starr whom she professes to love simply because he is the underdog of Beetle-mania and nobody's favorite. However, even though Summer is the receiver of Tom's attention, she has the power and clear ability to subvert the power hierarchy in the relationship by submitting Tom to her choices and decisions.

Summer's clothing signals a creature of classic style predilections who enjoys with a curbed passion the things very few have the desire and courage to pursue openly. She quotes the (to many) a tad obscure music of the British indie rock band Belle & Sebastian and she loves the music of The Smiths.

At first sight, Tom has found what years of cultural conditioning had told him he would find: his heteronormative holy grail. Tom's beliefs are reminiscent of an era of 20th century Americana which says that after a certain amount of good effort has been made, good things are bound to fall into place. Tom went to college, got a degree in a respectable field, by being as he says, “perfectly adequate,” and upon graduation he failed, as many do, when it comes to finding employment in his area of expertise. Instead, he accepts employment from a greeting card company.

Tom's life is not unlike that of many other young professionals who, after years of college instruction and unsubstantiated and unconcretized hope, find themselves proving the old, conventional adages wrong. Hard work and conscientious discipline are not all one needs to succeed. In an ailing economy which, at best, is characterized by caprice and unbridled greed, people like Tom find themselves having to compromise and accept what little the brittle economy has to offer: a seemingly inconsequential job with benefits, a steady monthly salary, and a retirement plan. This is, after all, an old family business which values its workers. Granted, the card-writing business in which he worked is, what he terms, “lies”, but that is irrelevant in the presence of overall economic uncertainty. Hence, it makes good sense that Tom, having been unsuccessful in the realm of his professional life would at least dare to dream and hold on to the conventional practices of love and romance that his culture had taught him since prepubescence.

One of the cultural references Tom reacted to the most was the Benjamin story in Mike Nichols' 60's hit, The Graduate. In that story, the character of Benjamin gets the right girl at the end and Mrs. Robinson, the right girl's mother is put in her place for daring to pursue, no, allure and seduce a much younger man, a new college graduate full of future corporate promise who can only deserve to be with someone like Mrs. Robinson's daughter, whose loins are ripe for the picking and whose wifely presence is all young Benjamin needs to find the right extrinsic motivation to enter the business world of adult men and succeed.

Screenwriters Weber and Neustadter have tapped into some relevant and yet rather new anxieties with the Tom/Summer story. They, the storytellers, and we, the consumers of their product, have only one thing to thank for their art: an ailing, fragmented economy which is struggling to hold on to its not-so-past exuberance and hope.

Images seem to do the work more effectively than language in this film. Webb's camera choices tell the story of love between a couple about to encounter dysfunction in a Mulholand Drive-esque style reminiscent of the kind of Los Angeles David Lynch is usually capable of grasping and portraying. The Los Angeles that Webb so grippingly captures is not the kind we so often get offered from more mainstream Hollywood machines. Webb's city is the city of old buildings with charm and character, the city of minimalism, where people prefer small things, they like owning a little and they believe in exhibiting the kind of minimalism they are fed by the art of their choice. This is a city where people are seen on the streets, they frequent little, adorable Mom & Pop's establishments and then stop at old-school record stores, which are miraculously still in business even after a post-2008 Wall Street debacle. The city of Los Angeles presents an alternative world, a world alternative to what we know. A world which is grappling with the newly found borders and boundaries, a world in which recycling and minimalism dictate the actions and modus vivendi of most.

Both Tom and Summer share an interest in The Smiths and Tom almost looks like a young, vegetarian, lanky Morrissey. If I did not know any differently, I would have thought the story took place in London, the London of the 60's which is a references we get from Tom himself who annoyingly observes that he wishes the girls of modernity dressed more like the girls of the early 60's, the time of BritPop and Mike Nichols' The Graduate as opposed to the big glasses, huge purses with little dogs in them and ridiculous outfits.

While the big sun glasses and big dog-holding bags would have been sustainable in a pre-Obama age, the current modus operandi is different. It is of a Summer kind, the kind which is seemingly car-less, small apartment-living, vintage dress-wearing, and indie thing-supporting. It is conscious of resources and large stuff. It is minimalistic.

Webb's references in this film are specific yet easily decodable. The visible story line is a story told too often and quite well already. It is the kind of story that our collective pool of narratives can support most appropriately and of which it contains many references. This is the story of two people who find out they are interested in each other by virtue of their mutual narcissism. They see each other in the other, ergo, they fall in love. However, as the omniscient narrator tells us this is not a love story, this is a story about love.

One of the specific punk rock references made in this film is that of Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. The story of Sid and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen is portrayed as a kind of analogy to the Tom/Summer relationship. By way of some background, the Sid and Nancy story is captured in the 1986 Alex Cox film titled Sid and Nancy: Love Kills. Sid Vicious, a heavy heroin user and boyfriend of Nancy Spungen wakes up one day to find out that, while high on heroin, had stabbed Nancy to death. This is a topically unique reference as it does presuppose an understanding of not only the music world, i.e., who the Sex Pistols were and what kinds of concrete contributions they made to rock music as well as the equally fecund rock 'n roll social scene with its sea of heavy partying and self-mythologizing characters.

When Summer informs Tom that they had been fighting too much and that it was time for them to end their sort-of relationship, she suggests that they were turning into a Sid and Nancy. Quiet and usually melancholy Tom takes issue with such a diagnosis and resists it by saying he is hardly a Sid character. Summer intervenes by way of clarifying her initial statement adding that she is the one who is Sid thus turning quiet, melancholy Tom into a Nancy.

However, the storytellers are not simply recounting a story about love gone wrong. In a beautifully elegant array of implicit and explicit references they attempt to tell us just why the relationship between Tom Hanson and Summer Finn could not work in their immediate setting. Just like the economy needs to find new ways to re-imagine and re-define its current boundaries and look, love stories and stories of human commitment need to do the same.

Tom's artistic sensibilities are specifically in tune with the new Zeitgeist. He seems to be aware of a continuously shrinking economy. He understands that while he has formally been trained in architecture he will not necessarily find employment in the field as the economy cannot sustain the talent the universities have been supporting and producing for decades. So, for the sake of surviving, Tom does what many like Tom have done before: he accepts employment in a different field so that he can continue to live.

Yet, none of the banality of quotidianity is clearly visible in this story. Tom is a minimalist at best. He wears much of the same, as a matter of fact he is seen wearing the same pain or Puma shoes during the five-hundred-day 'Summer' span which is well over a year and 4 months. The same Ben Sherman dress shirt is something he sports with both suits and khakis. He portrays a kind of minimalism that's aesthetically pleasing yet somehow simultaneously content-rich. His look seems to suggest that a person does not need too much variety and a vast amount of stuff to look good. Who knew that minimalism could be satisfying?

Tom's apartment has an old-school charm to it. It looks like it was transplanted into the LA scene straight out of a London flat building circa 1960. Tom is seen riding the bus in the city where one tends to drive and a street bicycle serves as a furniture item almost as much as the couch right next to it. Tom walks on the street of Los Angeles as well and the last time we saw so much street-walking in LA was during a Steve Martin-produced Shopgirl (2005). The Los Angeles we as viewers experience is not the kind we are fed on a regular basis by typical Hollywood. Los Angeles is portrayed as a city of dreamers, a city which has the kind of structure and net to withhold and support the dreams of dreamers. It is the city of old building, early 20th century architecture and small businesses.

The world director Marc Webb and screenwriters Weber and Neustadter depict is the new global world, a world in which many cultures are seen as peacefully co-exiting while they shop together for urban furniture at Sweden's own Ikea in downtown Los Angeles. Incidentally, the extras Webb picks, such as the Chinese family featured in the Ikea bathroom scene is a rather West-informed Chinese family, a blend or rather a depiction of the cultural state of affairs in the new world. This is a world of differences, a world in which Tom can listen to The Smiths while he rides the elusive bus (yes, they do exist in LA) to work.

The omniscient voice of the storytellers interjects pieces of wisdom quite often in this story. He tells us explicitly that this is not just a story about love. We understand that this is a story about life in a fragmented world where the largeness and greatness of things past is already gone and all that is left is a trace of previous glories. What is glorified is not the LA of the 2000's but rather the LA of beautiful buildings echoing from the 1920's and a time untouched by rapid economic development. It is the LA of pre-modernism, the LA of possibilities, the LA of smaller spaces where intimacy can be conceived and sustained. This is the kind of city that has given up its previously complex ways of living. This is a city that is very much interested in simplicity and quieter ways of being. This seems to be the city that's accepted simpler ways of living because as Matthew E. May observes in his recent In Pursuit of Elegance: “... we need ... to consistently replace value-destroying complexity with value-creating simplicity. Because we need to know how to make room for more of what matters by eliminating what doesn’t.”

I wonder why it is so difficult for so many directors to capture the unique architecture of Los Angeles on the big screen. Usually, Los Angeles is portrayed as a silicon center of beautiful, primarily form-conscious people who clutch their over-priced Birkins and Pradas while their shiny blonde hair soaks up the special California sun.

One of the fundamental reasons why (500) Days of Summer seems to strike a chord with different audiences across the cultural spectrum is because it has captured the oldest story of all in a kind of new setting and world that most of us, regardless of background and experience, can ‘get’ and decode. The story works because it is imaginable. It works because it resides in a setting that most of us find believable and relatable. The film manages to tell the oldest story of our mythology in a new, minimalism-informed, and relatable way. And therein lies its gold.







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14 comments:

Becca said...

But is it that the new economy has created an idealized interest in minimalism?
Interesting premise.
In which countries have you seen this and how do the audiences' reactions compare?

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of stuff in here. I am taken by the point that this is a film about minimalistic values and not the already rehashed big romantic story.

JJ said...

I wonder if the reason why this film is so well received has anything to do with this 'cultural shift' you're mentioning in here.
Any other works of art where such a shift is observed?

Sra said...

So if one likes emo/punk/indie/other cultural "fringe", how does one know whether one is actually fringe or a mainstream poser?

And does vanilla become the new fringe?

Anonymous said...

All I can say about this movie is WOW!
I cautioned all my crowd not to watch it with someone they've just started to date though. ;)

Scott said...

This is giving me much food for thought.
When you say 'we' do you include the center and the margin, i.e., the margin and the 'norm'?

Shaun said...

Bri,
Thanks for reviewing this and for making me aware of this.
This film might just be the most thought- and emotion-provoking film I have ever seen.
The way everything hangs together is simply magical. I see that you attribute his eye for good timing to his music video background and it would make sense that such experience would prove most beneficial here.
The soundtrack is stupendous.
I've been full of thought and full of feeling since I saw it. I wish we had seen it together in one of the many cities you happen to find yourself.
This is not just a film, seriously. It's helping me process some pretty major things in my own life as well.

Nicki said...

This is quite a bit to process.
The semiotics of clothing is what I found particularly of interest. I find that the directors who play best with color are those who truly get the poetry of cinema.
And Summer's blue outfits, ah, so powerful.
I agree with the others. This is not just a film, this is poetry. I'll see it a number of times, that I know for a fact. Already seen it twice.

Nicki said...

Oh, and another thing I truly liked is how the story treats all involved in it as well as the audience as adults.

Dana said...

The notion of this being a story about a boy about a girl strikes me as new. We're usually fed stories about a boy and a girl.

Dana said...

Also, could you explain what you mean by there being a "clear giver/receiver dynamic in this scenario?"
Thanks.
It is a fabulous film, agreed.

Nicki said...

I looked at the movie again with more relaxed eyes and after I read your piece and I am happy to say this is the only film I've seen the past few years that's renewed my faith in cinematic art.
It's tapped into some cultural sensibilities we haven't quite seen on the screen before.

Jenny said...

It made me cry, it made me laugh, it made me think. And so did the film!
Thx, bri.

Jenny said...

Oh, I LOVE the soundtrack!